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"Moscow Attacking France's Africa Influence" - Paris

FILE: People demonstrate against French military presence in Niger on September 18, 2022 in Niamey.
FILE: People demonstrate against French military presence in Niger on September 18, 2022 in Niamey.

Video cartoons circulating on social media have shed light on a Russian propaganda campaign aimed at sapping France's influence among its African allies, analysts say.

The cartoons depict France as a voracious invader - typically an animal predator eyeing the riches of its former colonies, only to be overcome by those it seeks to subjugate.

"We are Macron's demons," say skeletons in one video, supposedly dispatched by French President Emmanuel Macron. A giant snake in France's red-white-and-blue colors appears and announces he wants to "conquer all of Africa."

Several of these cartoons have surfaced since December, proliferating on social media through pro-Russian accounts and pan-African influencers, AFP's Africa Factcheck unit has found.

A video put on Facebook on December 21 displayed an aggressive rat called "Emmanuel".

Armed white men in the combat fatigues of Russia's mercenary group Wagner are seen coming to the rescue of soldiers carrying the flags of Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

The psyops [psychological operations] cartoons convey simple images which are effective across cultures and language barriers, a French military source admitted.

"They use the codes of child fiction that a wide cross-section can relate to and are clearly the work of Russian or pro-Russian trolls," possibly based in St Petersburg, Bamako or Ouagadougou, the source said.

Several diplomats and experts told AFP the videos are weapons in a major campaign whipped up by Moscow to win support in the Sahel.

They have fed into the anti-French hostility swelling in Mali and Burkina Faso - fragile countries where a jihadist insurgency has sparked discontent in the army, leading to coups against elected leaders.

"The African continent is becoming the expression of a proxy war... against Western interests and particularly those of France," said Emmanuel Dupuy, head of the Paris-based Institute for European Perspective and Security (IPSE).

Mali's junta last year forced out French forces who had been key allies in its struggle against the jihadists since 2013, and Burkina this month followed suit.

- Wagner -

The Malian junta has woven close ties with the Kremlin, bringing in operatives that France and other say are Wagner mercenaries, and there is speculation that its counterpart in Burkina will follow suit.

This account had already pedaled accusations against France last April when a mass grave was dug up at Gossi in central Mali, close to a French military base that had just been handed back to the Malian army.

Photographs of blurred-out corpses in the sandy soil were heavily circulated on social media.

The French army denied involvement and put out pictures taken by a drone which it said showed Russian mercenaries burying dead bodies several days earlier.

A monitoring organization called All Eyes on Wagner said the new video emerged on Mali's "Day of Restored Sovereignty" -- a public holiday declared by the junta.

Dupuy said the depiction of Wagner in the videos was revealing.

It offered "proof that (Wagner) has changed its role somewhat, to present itself as a private army in the service of governments ... Mali today, perhaps Burkina Faso tomorrow," he said.

Graphic codes and use of anthropomorphism are indicators of a video that may have originated in "the Prigozhin constellation," suggested Maxime Audinet, a researcher at the French military's Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM), referring to Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.

- Long-standing technique -

The use of cartoons supporting Russia's narrative in Africa is not new.

In 2019, a cartoon was used to glorify Wagner combatants in the Central African Republic -- another former French colony where France has chose to withdraw its troops, also in the face of hostility.

Wagner deployed its men in 2018 to help the CAR's beleaguered government recover territory from rebel groups.

The cartoon shows a bear "from a country far away in the north called Russia," who arrives to save an elephant attacked by hyenas trying to eat its food.

The helpful bear then "establishes peace" between the wild animals on the savannah.

Unlike other videos, that one carried credits at the end in the name of Lobaye Invest - a company with mining rights in CAR, according to the US Treasury which sanctioned it in September 2020 over links to Wagner.

Wagner's strategy is "to manufacture a favourable image... to justify through media and cultural means its establishment and by extension, to legitimise Russia's growing presence in the region," researchers Maxime Audinet and Colin Gerard wrote last year on on the French analysis platform Le Rubicon.

France has been slow to understand the scale of what was happening in this information war, the commentators said.

Paris is trying to catch up. The foreign ministry has set up a monitoring and strategy team and the army has put a general in charge of the issue.

In November, Macron stressed that today "influence" is a "strategic priority."